Repetitive Stress Injuries and Ergonomics
After a few hours at work, your back starts to ache a little. Your office chair never did feel exactly comfortable, but that is just how it goes, right? Or maybe after typing for a while your wrist starts to tingle. After a few months, your hand is feeling a little numb by the end of the day. Is this just a normal part of working at a desk or is it something you should be concerned about? Unfortunately, what started as little aches and pains at work can develop into serious ailments called repetitive stress injuries (RSIs). They can become painful and incapacitating, and might wind up requiring medical treatment, time off from work, or changing vocations altogether.
RSIs not only are painful for the employee, but they can impact the bottom line of the company. One organization found that more than 700,000 workers miss work each year due to RSIs and work-related back ailments. And that it can cost $15- $20 billion a year in missed work and workers’ compensation. Luckily, workplace ergonomics can prevent and reduce the chances of developing these types of injuries.
What Are Repetitive Stress Injuries?
A repetitive stress injury also called a repetitive strain injury or RSI is a gradual buildup of damage to tendons, nerves and/or muscles due to repetitive motion. Some of the warning signs are achy joints, numbness in the area, tingling, or weakness. These injuries develop slowly and continue to get worse as the movements are repeated over and over. And if not treated, they can develop into serious ailments that require time away from work or even having to leave work altogether. It’s best to prevent them or at least catch them as soon as possible—because just as they develop slowly over time, recovery will likely be slow and take time.
The most common RSIs are carpal tunnel syndrome, bursitis, “tennis elbow,” and rotator cuff tendonitis. Increased computer use and related repetitive motions are one reason there has been an increase in the number of RSIs nationwide. We’ll explain why this is the case below where we go into more detail on how RSIs occur.
How Do You Get An RSI?
Many types of jobs are prone to developing repetitive stress injuries at work. Working at a desk is at the top of the list, and the activities most likely to lead to RSIs are things like using a computer mouse, typing, or grasping tools. Incorrect posture can happen from a poorly-fitting office chair, a keyboard, and mouse that is not ergonomic, and/or your computer monitor being at the wrong height and distance.(Other non-office occupations that are prone to RSIs are working on an assembly line, swiping items at a supermarket, construction work, cleaners, and many others).
Some of the initial indications that an RSI is developing are tenderness, swelling, stiffness, tingling or numbness, weakness, and mild pain. Symptoms may begin gradually and then become constant and more intense. Even initial symptoms may start to interfere with your ability to perform your usual activities. Tendonitis is a frequently-occurring ailment and usually develops in the wrist, elbow, forearm, or hand. Carpal tunnel is another common injury for office workers. And back fatigue, strain, or pain are often seen due to poor posture from bad chairs.
Overall the areas of the body where RSIs are most often seen include the wrists and hands, forearms and elbows, and neck and shoulders. That doesn’t leave any body parts, not at risk! So it is important to consider using ergonomic office equipment to keep all parts of your body healthy.
How Ergonomics Help Prevent RSIs
Luckily, there are ways to prevent and reduce RSIs—through ergonomic science. Ergonomics takes the human form and motions into account in their design, and are created to alleviate repetitive stresses. Designers have taken the capability of the employee to perform the job, as well as any limitations may physically exist when creating the office equipment.
If you work at a desk using a computer, your chair can be one of the biggest issues. There is not normally a lot of consideration given to which chairs are the best for which people and tasks, but it is very important. An ergonomic chair with proper support for the entire back and neck, at the right height, with the right seat will all make a huge difference.
Or a standing desk might be a better answer. Humans weren’t built to sit all day, and allowing your body to stand tall puts your spine in a healthy, neutral position. This can prevent lower-back pain and keep your neck happy, and can also increase blood flow which improves energy and alertness.
In addition to the chair and desk, other office-related equipment that can be optimized ergonomically are the keyboard, mouse, and monitor. The keyboard should allow you to reach the keys while keeping your wrists in line with your hands and elbows at 90 degree angles. The mouse should be close enough you don’t need to stretch to reach it, and designed to minimize the physical impacts of constant clicking. Your computer should be directly in front of you, at the correct eye level, with font the right size for you to easily read. You shouldn’t have to twist or strain forward to use any of your desk equipment or see the monitor. And if you are on the phone a lot, a headset should be used to avoid straining your neck, shoulders, or arms.
Repetitive stress injuries can be painful and incapacitating for the employee, and expensive for the employer. Ill-fitting office equipment is one of the biggest contributors to these types of injuries. An ergonomic makeover of your office can prevent RSIs, making workers healthier and happier, and reducing illness-related time off and workers’ compensation costs.
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